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Inside Sandy Hook School: Learning To Heal

BY MATTHEW STURDEVANT, msturdevant@courant.com

The Hartford Courant

5:39 AM EDT, June 14, 2013

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On those nights when Amy DeLoughy's children can't sleep, haunted by memories of the massacre at their elementary school, or on those mornings when they can't face the daily routine, she calls in the ducks.

Doctor ducks, military ducks, postal worker ducks, princess ducks, police ducks and, of course, white ducks with green ribbons -- the symbol of solidarity and healing for Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The perfect size for fitting in an elementary school student's hand, a rubber duck is a goofy, colorful and unexpectedly comforting talisman for the hundreds of Sandy Hook students who lived through one of the worst elementary school massacres in U.S. history. Some students now have dozens.

It's been a half-year since the tragedy. In those six months, as the world's attention has shifted elsewhere, life inside the substitute Sandy Hook school in Monroe has been a close interplay of students and teachers learning a new normal.

Healing is a slow process with erratic progress.

For some, the memories remain jarringly fresh -- the acrid smell of gun smoke, the sharp echo of gunshots over the public address system, the crunch of broken glass underfoot as crying children fled -- and far worse for others, particularly students and staff at the school office and near the first-grade classrooms where 20 classmates and six women died.

For some students, little sounds can be terrifying -- the slam of a dropped book, a car door closing or a raised angry voice.

Little things can be reassuring, too.

The decorated plastic ducks were among the boxes of teddy bears, toys and school supplies that flooded Newtown in the weeks after the Dec. 14 shooting, filling public spaces and garages and, eventually, warehouses. Sent by Kiwanis members in Colorado, the ducks were plucked from the other donations by Monroe police Officers Todd Keeping and Michael Panza, who provided security at the new school.

They put the ducks on windowsills and desks, and in classroom nooks, hoping to ease tension and brighten dark days.

"Adults like them. Kids like them," Keeping said. "It just got to the point where I'd hear, 'My kid is riding the bus and looking forward to coming to school again.' "

The ducks are a healthy distraction, a mascot and a metaphor for healing and new life, psychologists and child trauma experts say.

"It serves as a transitional object, something to help distract you from painful thoughts and memories," said Laura Saunders, a child psychologist at Hartford Hospital's Institute of Living. "And, at the same time, it gives you inspiration that there's something beyond what's going on right in front of you."

This Easter, children scurried across a field near their new school in Monroe to scoop up more than 3,000 ducks -- like an egg hunt. It was a zigzagging mad dash with cheers and giggles.

GOING BACK

That Easter scene would have been difficult to imagine even a few months earlier, when some children tearfully told parents that they didn't want to, that they couldn't, return to school.

The first day back, in January, parents followed the school buses that took their children to the new Sandy Hook, a once-closed middle school in Monroe renovated on a tight schedule over the winter holidays. There was a strong police presence at the school, as well as television cameras, photographers with long lenses and reporters with notepads lining the road.

That's as close as any outsider has gotten to the school.

What happens inside the school is shared discreetly, and most of the stories are those that the community has tacitly deemed acceptable. The ducks are something to focus on, a story to share other than the one they lived through, a toy that allows children to be kids again, to play.

While many are mum publicly about the shooting, or about daily activity at the school, the parents talk. They talk with each other, with counselors, with clergy, with relatives, with anyone who can help them help their children and themselves.

Sandy Hook parents Dennis and Andrea Stratford said that when their 6-year-old kindergartner, Luke, heard the gunshots, he thought it was "the school breaking." His teacher stepped out of the classroom and was hit by a bullet. She told her students it was red paint.

"He saw his teacher with blood coming out of her foot," Andrea Stratford said. "He said, 'Mommy, I knew. I knew it was blood.' "

The first day back, Andrea Stratford followed her son's bus. The parking lot was packed with the cars of other parents who couldn't bear to be apart from their children so soon after the funerals for the 20 first-graders and six women.

Parents, once inside, were taken to the lecture hall where administrators tried to reassure them. The superintendent spoke. The principal spoke. Then, the parents talked among themselves.

"It was very calm," Andrea Stratford said of the first day.

It isn't always.

Like many, the Stratfords cope with the tragedy hour by hour, day by day.

"We're getting better, I think," Dennis said. "Actually, no one is getting better to tell you the truth. It's a slow move."

He spoke to a school administrator recently and the two assured each other that they were doing well.

"Then we decided to tell each other the truth," Dennis said. His son, however, seems to be coping well.

DARK STORIES

Many of the darkest stories are shared, quietly and tearfully but not publicly -- there are the surviving children who witnessed the shooting rampage, some who dashed past the killer as they fled the building and one who pretended to be dead beneath her slain classmates.

Other children in classrooms at the front of the building were close enough to hear the killer cursing as he fired his rifle. Parents share stories about startled reactions, sudden sobs, interrupted nights, disturbing questions, fears of death.

One mother says her child is in therapy often during the week, although she is careful not to offer too many details of the difficult days in order to shield her child's identity.

"We are trying to restore [my child's] sense of control. It isn't just about what happened -- which is horrible enough, but going forward it is dealing with the very ugly reality that it could happen anywhere, any time. And the Boston bombing certainly didn't help matters," she said.

The mother said the experience of students who witnessed, or were close to, the shooting is far from those of students in more distant classrooms, students who were escorted out a side door after a knock at the door.

Her child was close enough to hear a teacher begging for her life and the gunman swearing at his victims. After the rampage ended, police barged into her child's classroom with guns drawn, poised to shoot, screaming: "Is he here? Are you alone?" When the door flew open, the children didn't know whether it was the killer or police.

Her child and others were told to keep their eyes closed as they rushed from the school through the hallway near the main office, passing the bodies of their principal and school psychologist.

If you have ever told a child not to peek, you know that many are bound to look, and they did, she said.

Some children said they saw the gunman on the ground and mistook him for a policeman because he was wearing dark clothes. Some recall the trail of blood from one teacher's injuries; others remember the distinct crunch of broken glass underfoot, and the smell of gunpowder that filled the hall, the mother said.

Many children continue to suffer trauma-related aftershocks. For some, it is chronic night terrors and seemingly perpetual anxiety. For others, visiting an unfamiliar place might prompt blunt questions including, "Where would I hide if something happened here?"

NEW NORMAL

Almost everyone involved with the school is trying to make life easier. Counselors are available. Therapy dogs have tried to ease the pain.

Keeping, for his part, asked to be assigned to the elementary school because he lives in Sandy Hook. His children attended Sandy Hook Elementary School and are older now.

Keeping is not among the police officers and state troopers who charged into Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14 to rescue those inside. Keeping serves as security for the school, but he also has a role in helping children and parents.

"I just wanted to have a way to make these kids smile, and it wasn't easy in the beginning," Keeping said. "But the ducks have helped a lot. ... Things get better week by week."

Sandy Hook volunteer firefighter Peter Barresi, who responded to the scene on Dec. 14, has a son, Wyatt, in first grade at the school.

"I know two people who said their kids only went back to school because of the ducks," Barresi said.

The ducks -- which have their own Facebook page, The Ducks of Sandy Hook Elementary -- have become celebrities, being photographed with the famous, as well as world travelers, as the community embraced them. Facebook photos show them all over the world, including Buckingham Palace, on the deck of cruise ships, with President Barack Obama, next to the Stanley Cup and posed with two Canadian Mounties.

Although any Connecticut school would be wary of a distraction like the ducks, it's a needed diversion for people in Newtown, said Saunders, the child psychologist.

"I really love the fact that this has become such a communitywide thing, that it gives people a sense of connection as well," Saunders said. "It's a shared feeling of connection: We are not alone."

"That people are able to latch onto that symbolism of growth and change is really healthy and adaptive," Saunders said.

Dr. Adam Zolotor, a professor in the department of family medicine at the University of North Carolina, said people should not "over-interpret the comfort that people might find in this."

"It's pretty clear that people who are not badly traumatized, who are looking for a way of community coming together, might find some solace in this kind of a symbolic gesture. But I think that kids that had first- or second-hand experience with the shootings at Sandy Hook are probably going to need a lot more," said Zolotor, a physician who researches child trauma from a public health standpoint.

The pace of growth and change depends on the day, who is talking and how their children are coping, especially with some of the stories they hear from other students, in school or on the long bus rides to and from the out-of-town school.

Parents and others are seeing adjustment. Students are less likely to jump at strange sounds than they were in January, when even the sound of a chair moving on the second floor of the new school would frighten those on the first floor.

"I think that [the students] are doing as expected," said Janet Robinson, who was Newtown's superintendent until May 3. She took a job in Stratford, an arrangement made before Dec. 14. "Everybody gets through things on their [own] time frame."

The school and town have had assistance dealing with trauma from mental-health experts at state agencies, at least one psychologist at Yale University, counselors at the Clifford Beers clinic in New Haven and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. The school had as many as 11 counselors at one point, Robinson said.

"I've never been in a tragedy before," Robinson said. "So, I don't know what to expect. I've just been taking my cues from the responses I see of the kids and adults around me and advice of mental-health experts. That's all I know. My understanding is that when somebody's safety has been shattered in this manner, where school is probably the safest place you can be on Earth, it takes people awhile to recapture their sense of safety."

Newtown's school-facility staff, town workers and volunteers worked quickly over the winter break to prepare Chalk Hill, a middle school, for smaller children. Platforms were built on top of bathroom floors to make toilets and sinks accessible to the more than 500 Sandy Hook students in kindergarten through fourth grade.

And the decor of the building was intentionally designed to match the original Sandy Hook.

"The amount of work they did was impossible," said Dennis Stratford, who works as a courier for Newtown schools and visits Chalk Hill daily.

"There is nothing sad about the structure," he said. "It was filled with these beautiful decorations. So the walls were filled with snowflakes and wintry stuff [when the students returned to school]."

School administrators made a rule to not have any angels or the names of victims on the school walls, which were common around town in late December and early January.

"That was already in the air; you didn't need it to be on the walls," Dennis Stratford said. "Even though there was all of that beauty, there was still the sadness. There wasn't a dry eye that walked through that school."

In addition to the new school, the police and the counselors, there are new routines.

For example, on Dec. 14, the public address system was on and so students and staff could hear the shooting even in the far reaches of the school. In the hopes of preventing the new PA system from triggering memories, announcements are preceded by the tinkling of a bell.

"So, it's not this crackling noise and then announcements. ... It's like Pavlov's dog. Some sound can trigger a memory, or a smell can trigger a memory, or a sight of something," Andrea Stratford said.

School officials have applied for federal money for counselors. In late May, the U.S. Department of Education announced a $1.3 million grant to assist Newtown schools with recovery. It's too soon to know how long counselors will be needed.

Academically, the Stratford's son, Luke, is great, they said. He's reading on a first-grade level -- one grade ahead. But there's the concern that he will find out soon what happened at his school from older children who are talking bluntly about it, Andrea Stratford said. She interacts with local children at her dance studio, and the third-graders and fourth-graders at Sandy Hook know exactly what happened.

"[And] they are aware that there are some teachers who are not back," Andrea Stratford said.

Luke still thinks his teacher's bleeding foot was probably from broken glass as the school "was breaking."

"Now, he starts to hear things," Dennis Stratford said. "Older kids from the neighborhood or something. He knew something wasn't right that day from all the police that kicked his door open in the classroom."

DAILY REMINDER

Amy DeLoughy is reminded of the shooting just by looking out the windows of her home.

"We actually live on Yogananda Street right near where Adam Lanza lived," DeLoughy said. "[It] is an added factor that impacts the kids daily."

Her former next-door neighbors, Nicole and Ian Hockley, moved out as fast as they could, unable to remain near the home of the man who killed their son, Dylan.

DeLoughy has two children who were at the school during the shooting: Mark, 9, is in third grade, and Riley, 7, is in first grade. Not long after the shooting, DeLoughy said, her children asked her, 'If [Adam Lanza] was in the house and he is bad, how do we know there is nobody else there that's bad?' "

The unsettling feeling of knowing that a killer lived across the street, and the trauma of that day in the school, kept Mark from sleeping at night. He was reluctant to go to bed. He had nightmares.

"He told me every time he closed his eyes he would hear the sounds from that day," DeLoughy said. "So we worked on different techniques to get him to relax."

It's trial and error. DeLoughy also has two nieces living at her home, including one who was close to the shooting. The younger one was soothed to sleep by classical music, reading and rubbing her back.

"There was a period of time where they would wake up in the middle of the night," DeLoughy said of her children and nieces. "I felt like I had a newborn baby again because one would wake up, I'd finally get them settled down and back to sleep and another one would wake up. But it has gotten better."

Each day is different at home and school, and some are better than others. Sometimes, a moment of happiness is interrupted.

Not long ago, Riley was at home and heard Sandy Hook mentioned in a television newscast.

"He said, 'Mom, I can't believe they're still talking about Sandy Hook,' and he was kind of angry, I think because maybe for that moment he thought he got past it and now he was brought back in because it was in the news," DeLoughy said.

She explained to her son that the event is a part of history, that he is a part of history.

"It's with them forever ... and it's tough to get a 7-year-old to understand," DeLoughy said, saying her son asked her, "How can I be a part of history? History is old."

One evening, the family went to a Danbury Whalers minor league ice hockey game. As they were getting out of the car in a parking garage, several car doors closed in rapid succession.

Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.

"My son Mark ducked for cover," DeLoughy said. "That was his immediate reaction."

DeLoughy's children knew several of the children who were killed. They are in counseling outside of school learning to work with and through their feelings. Riley, her youngest, has been acting out in ways that he didn't before, including throwing things.

For a while he kept bringing different "sad" stuffed animals to his mother. After his older brother, Mark, sought out a counselor at school, Riley brought his stuffed dragon to his mother.

"He said, 'Mommy, my dragon is so sad today about what happened at my school,' and I finally said to Riley, 'Mommy doesn't have anything else to say to them. I think maybe we should take them to a special helper,' " DeLoughy said.

It worked. Riley sees a counselor after school now.

Academic progress comes second to getting through the day, DeLoughy said. Afternoons are the most difficult because DeLoughy's children, like others, are tired from interrupted sleep.

"I use the ducks as an incentive to get the kids to want to go to school," DeLoughy said. Her children were dreading having to go back to school after the weeklong break in April. As an incentive for all children, Keeping revealed a new duck to the children on the Monday after the break.

"It brought excitement," DeLoughy said. "They wanted to go to school."

HOME FOR NOW

Sandy Hook students are expected to remain at Chalk Hill until Newtown builds a new Sandy Hook Elementary School at the site of the old school, which will be demolished. The new school could open by spring 2016.

Deciding whether to renovate Sandy Hook Elementary School or build a new school -- and where to put it -- was challenging for the 28-person task force of selectmen, school board members and council and finance board members that met five times in April and May.

At the fourth meeting, some teachers met with the task force behind closed doors and, when they emerged, the tone was somber as some elected officials questioned whether to send staff back to the site of the killings. The next week, however,task force members voted to demolish the existing school and build a new one in its place, with a new design and a different entrance. The issue will be put to voters as a referendum.

Assuming it's approved, few of the students who were in the school Dec. 14 will ever attend the new school. Only this year's part-time kindergartners -- some of whom had afternoon class and were not in the building during the shooting -- would return for a full year at the new Sandy Hook.

The old Sandy Hook school gets few visitors.

But this spring, old friends returned and stayed awhile. It was the mallard ducks that have for years found safety in the interior courtyard, a place to lay their eggs and raise their young surrounded by brick walls, safe from many predators.

Just as they arrived on schedule, so did their ducklings. The eggs hatched at Sandy Hook earlier this spring.

In the past, the mallards nurtured the ducklings and when they were strong enough, the custodial staff walked them from the courtyard, through the school and out into the world.

This year was no exception.

The Ducks of Sandy Hook Elementary School Facebook page has photos and a May 10 post: "Every year the true ducks of Sandy Hook Elementary are born in the court yard of the school. ... Last Saturday or Sunday the eggs hatched. So here they are, still in the court yard, they will soon be led out of the court yard and to the pond to begin their lives. Good luck, little friends."